I remember this blender, though I didn’t remember owning it. In another box I find my emergency medicine textbooks. Among my former desk contents, a box of staples and a rainbow plastic slinky. Enameled Japanese-style soup bowls come out of newspaper. Everything comes out of boxes.

Is this my life?

I’m finally back “home.” I finally have an apartment. I can now own more than I can fit into my backpack, and suddenly I have a great many jackets and an abundance of fresh memories. I unpack more books and try not to think of these objects as my life. My stuff is not me, I keep insisting. A friend of mine says he learned this very clearly when his house burned down. How marvelously zen. I can’t throw out my first girlfriend’s leftover lingerie.

Or my iPhone, which traps me. I’m secretly ashamed of it, not because of the geek lust I feel, but because of its semiotics. To the casual observer, it pegs me as exactly what I am. Is some part of me an iPhone?

Hence the Chinese grocer.

Not only is the produce cheaper, but I don’t recognize most of it. I stand in front of bushels of something leafy and green, and discover that I can’t even read the name. I like this. Behind me there are tentacled things on ice, and sea snails. I had an excellent plate of sea snails in back alley of Saigon, and some others steamed on a beach near Danang. Those two incidents are the extent of my associations.

Not so for my distant counterpart. Is there, I wonder, some Vietnamese kid who even now is returning home and going out with his friends? He grabs a plate of food, reveling in familiar tastes, and at the same time thinks: is this really me? This home cooking, is it my life?

Because he got home that afternoon and started pulling all his old familiars out of big nylon duffels. He finds his old clothes, and a familiar pair of shoes. Knickknacks. Some books. But what books? What knickknacks?

I have no idea, and this excites me tremendously.

Everyone gets my jokes here; everyone grew up on the same cartoons and more or less the same food. Qarly found fish balls in my fridge the other day and said, ewww. What? Everyone eats them in Korea. I think. I don’t really know. They have completely different stuff there. If I was there I’d have completely different stuff too. I’d read different books and watch different movies and my nightlife would run in different neon veins.

I might be someone else. Do I really want to keep unpacking?

NASA and Verizon

“Verizon customer service, how may I help you?”

“Yeah, hi. I think we have a problem with last month’s bill. The amount due is, let’s see here, $140 million dollars.”

“What line is this, sir?”

“This is for Mars Phoenix. You know, the rover?”

“I’m sorry sir, I’m not a sports fan. Let me check on that for you; yes, that’s right, I’m showing an outstanding balance of $143,212,700. And nine cents.”

Continue reading NASA and Verizon

We Are Not All One

At first I didn’t think much about other people.

I was doing very well for myself. It was not until my early twenties that I really failed at something I wanted. I had no friends who weren’t much like myself — white, well educated, happy childhoods, culturally Western.

A woman named Crazy Kim disabused me. She runs a bar in the seaside town of Nha Trang, but that’s now. One night she told me about her student days in communist Vietnam, the way she used to get out of mine clearing duties by pretending to be sick. On the day before she was to graduate, she set out to sea in a small wooden boat. She was lucky; she got picked up by a passing freighter bound for Holland. Twenty years later, she had to apply for a Vietnamese passport to return home, so thoroughly had her birth country forgotten her. Now she uses the revenue from the bar to fight pedophile tourists who come for the young girls.

She was the first person I’d ever met with real problems — not problems like getting a job or wishing someone would call you back, but problems like surviving on a boat at sea and starting a new life in a new country. She’d overcome all of this, and talked about it like it was normal. It was normal to her, the only life she’d ever known, and after all that she’d decided that what she really wanted to do with her days was help other people out. I felt like she was living more life than me. My heart went out to her. After a few more shots, my heart went out to everyone in her little bar, tourists, locals, all of them. I leaned into my neighbor and told him that I loved everyone I’d ever met.

The epiphany outlasted the hangover. Why shouldn’t everyone in the world be happy? Why shouldn’t I extend the benefit of the doubt to everyone I meet? Hell, we all want the same things, right? I began to see that peaceful people before me had scratched “LOVE” into wooden surfaces everywhere. The guest-house guest-books were filled with “all we have in this world is each other” and “live life today!” and “We are One!”

It’s the basic realization of compassion.

What astounds me is that I’ve heard it over and over again from people of all cultures. A stoic Ethiopian on a bus told me about his principle that all humanity is united. A passionate journalist from Dakar has expounded to me that we cannot afford to see ourselves as different. Over tea on the streets of St. Louis, a young mullah explained to me patiently that all are equal in the eyes of Allah. And of course I’ve been on the other stool so many times now, with a drunken Thai or Nigerian or Russian all but drooling on me in their eagerness to explain that they’ve realized something amazing: we are all merely human!

And you can look into their eyes, the eyes the person across the table from you, across that gulf of experience and education and culture and attitude that you just can’t bridge, and you know you’re supposed to feel a deep human connection somehow.

Then the bastard shatters it by asking you for money to beat his wife. Or something.

Because I don’t really know what to say to that Lebanese guy who talks about his African servants as “idiots.” I was astounded at how often the Hong Kong Chinese wouldn’t take my order if I couldn’t speak Cantonese, and more than one Moroccan man once told me to “go back to your hell!” For every beautiful soul I met along my way, there was an asshole who wanted nothing more from me than whatever he could get.

The stereotypes are what killed me most. I wanted to keep an open mind; I was enlightened and I knew that the terrible things I’d heard were the rantings of bigots; they couldn’t possibly have any truth to them. So it was with some dismay that I began to see that Germans really are uptight, that Indian merchants would lie to my face if it made them a buck, that Africans would heap scorn on Africans just one shade darker then them. (Also, the Chinese really are atrocious drivers.) These aren’t universal principles, of course. Like all stereotypes they are no substitute for looking at the person in front of you. Yet I found myself with opinions–

And you discover you’re wrong about what’s important. My mother always told me that everyone in the world wants the same things: family, food, shelter. No. It’s not true. The things that drive us differ. Depending where you live, the most important thing in your world might be allegiance to your father, or Allah, or ridding the province of Pakistanis, or making enough money to buy an air conditioner. We are not all one.

The first step is always to ask, why can’t we all just get along? This the is the moment where you take to heart the idea that everyone is deserving, at least in principle, of your love, compassion, and good will. You suddenly see that this is what peace and cooperation are, that civilization itself is built upon extending humanity and generosity to others. I am with the sages and the hippies in shouting from the rooftops that this is a Good Thing. But it’s not enough, because not everyone wants what you want. In fact, a great many people aren’t even remotely similar to you, and in ways that will probably upset you.

There has to be a form of compassion that embraces the world as it is, not as we wish it was.

In The Suburbs

Jai told me that everyone in Siliguri was crazy about the new mall that opened there. He hastened to assure me that he personally wasn’t all that impressed, being from more developed Punjab state, but he took me there anyway. It was big and white and air conditioned and full of the usual global chain stores (Adidas, Sony, Starbucks.) Compared to the dirt markets of traditional India, it struck me as surprisingly bland and expensive– but also clean and comfortable. So badly did the locals want to see it on opening day that the security guards had to physically keep the crowds out, letting in only those who actually had money to buy.

America was once this way. Witness the 1957 promotional film In The Suburbs, courtesy of the Internet Archive:

Yes, this is real. Was real, an icon and instigator of the shining consumer culture that Kerouac critiqued even in its nascent state. Today, the notion of the white plastic suburban wasteland is so mainstream in the West that we can easily forget its intrinsic appeal; modern marketing is all about being unique and different, but it was once enough just to be new and middle class.

But the other billions still want this! They want to drive their new cars (thank you Tata) to the new mall. In the developing world, Middle Class is the holy grail. It’s a deep, almost universal aspiration that seems shallow to us only because we already have it. While I drink imported wine with my friends and ponder global economics, neuroscience, and avant-garde electronic music, most of the world just wants to be rich enough to shop somewhere air-conditioned — and in quantity.

The shopping centers see these young adults as people whose homes are always in need of expansion. People who buy in large quantities, and truck it away in their cars… It’s a happy-go-spending world!

Teenage Political Addiction

“Just one email,” they said. “Forward it to all your friends.” That’s how it starts, and before you know it you’re that guy in the recent Onion article who won’t shut up about politics. Then that creepy little troll who volunteers for MoveOn.org suddenly thinks you’re dating — and no spam filter is ever going to convince him that you were never together in the first place! Hell, it might be worth telling him you’re voting for McCain, in front of all of your friends, just to get rid of him.

Nonetheless, McCainFreeWhiteHouse.org is pretty damn funny.

(As with so many cool things, my friend Brendan brought this my attention.)

World Peace, Really

The beauty pageant answer; the cliche along with rocket science and brain surgery. World Peace. Give Peace a chance. Marches and diplomats; the glib and holy grail. The fine ambitious scent of ambassador’s parties and the scandals of diplomacy. Presidents smile whitely as Arafat and Rabin shake hands.

It’s not like that on the ground. Jody sleeps under a mosquito net and has never been on television, as far as I know. It’s a maddeningly hot, humid night in the ever-sweltering lowlands of Gambella. Tomorrow morning Jody will get up and walk along mud streets to the little three-room PACT office. Gambella has a history of tribal conflict, and…

How to describe a place I don’t understand myself? She drew a little chart for me once, all of the ethnic groups and sub-groups here, all of the shifting and diffuse allegiances. Sometimes you can tell a Nuer from an Anuak by the facial scars — three thin lines across the brow for Nuers, traditionally — but often not. But it’s a small town, right? Everyone knows everyone else, or at least their families. Everyone’s on some side of some line. Or lines. To be neutral is to be without identity.

Jody’s job is “peace building.” She works for an international NGO called PACT. Check the old news on Gambella, what you can find of it — it would have been utterly buried before Google, I’m sure. In January 2004 there was a massacre, said to be Anuaks killing Nuers. The Anuaks in question were maybe retaliating against previous killings by government peacemaking troops. That in turn was retaliation against the killing of eight highlander (government) personnel in a land rover a few months prior. Maybe. I don’t know exactly what happened. Nobody knows exactly what happened. There aren’t any newspapers in Gambella, and not many people could read them if there were. So it’s all heresay, and it all depends who you ask. Two hundred people were killed. Maybe raped.

Continue reading World Peace, Really

Stories About the Economy

There are days when I think economics is indistinguishable from voodoo. The famous village health-care handbook “Where There Is No Doctor“, written for people who have never been exposed to science, includes a section on distinguishing superstition from medicine. “The more remedies there are for any one illness,” the authors write, “the less likely it is that any of them works.”

And so it is with us, and the many stories about what happened to our economy and how it might be fixed. It’s not that an event like the current financial meltdown is not understandable; it’s just that really understanding what happened and how to make it better requires a lot of training and knowledge that most people lack. Without this background, anything we might be able to say about our economic problems is necessarily a fable, a narrative about one-dimensional heroes and villains with names such as “GDP” and “sup-prime loan.” But if we must have stories, they should be good stories. We want stories that have some relationship to reality, that will expand fractally into the right explanations if we choose to look deeper into any particular point

With that caveat, I present to you the best short explanations I’ve been able to find about the current crisis.

Continue reading Stories About the Economy

New Apartment Adventure

You close the door behind you in your new apartment. Your housewarming is in one week. It is pitch black.


You cannot see the light switch.


You walk along the wall with your hands. Fortunately, there is nothing to trip over in your empty apartment.  You find a switch.


Nothing happens. Have you an account with Pacific Gas & Electric?

Continue reading New Apartment Adventure

ABC Refuses to Air Clean Power Ad

I was going to write about something else today, I really was, but this is both annoying and beautifully obvious. Al Gore’s We Campaign, which I have written of before, attempted to purchase an ad spot on ABC immediately after last night’s presidential debate. According to WeCanSolveIt.Org, ABC refused to air the following ad:

Why? Probably because it includes the narration,

So why are we still stuck with dirty and expensive energy?
Because big oil spends hundreds of millions of dollars to block clean energy.

Instead, ABC aired Chevron commercials during the debate.

Sort of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? Call it confirmation bias, but I take this as a bad sign for the enviroment.

Are we completely powerless here? Probably not. One could take a moment to digg the story, and perhaps also to add your name to the letter that the We Campaign is sending to ABC. They’re hoping to get 100,000 signatures, which seems a very reasonable number. I wonder if they’re going to print them all out and hand deliver that stack of paper… and then smack someone with it. Sadly, this would probably not help them in their actual goal, which is to get the ad aired during next debate.

This may be difficult, because Chevron no doubt has an even bigger stack of paper.

Jai of Siliguri

Jai is mad about his Pulsar. It’s a 180, a big bike to start with, but he’s put a decal on it that says 200, a perfect forgery of the factory sticker. He says people stop him in the street ask him about it, even take pictures. Standing in the dirt at the side of the road, waiting for the mechanic to install a new and louder muffler, he gestures at the busy main street.

“What’s the fastest you’ve ever driven on this road?”

The street is full of cars, trucks, cows, bikes, bicycles, pedestrians, oxcarts, everything. I tell him, well, the traffic moves at about 40 kilometers an hour.

“I’ve gone 87,” he grins. Then a grimace. “It’s not a good idea.” But you can see how he really feels about it.
Continue reading Jai of Siliguri